The Earl of Berkeley has died.
That's the nickname a sportswriter for the old Berkeley Gazette gave Earl Robinson when he was a multisport star at Berkeley High in the early 1950s.
But Robbie, as his friends called him, was a Berkeley legend long before he got to high school. Growing up in West Berkeley in the late 1940s, he was the best sandlot player at San Pablo Park, where he earned a reputation for protecting smaller children from bullies.
After high school he moved on to Cal, where, as captain of the basketball team, he led the Bears to conference titles in 1956, '57 and '58. He was named to the All-Coast team twice and the all-conference team three times.
But to him, those accolades paled compared to the Most Inspirational Player award his teammates voted him in his senior year. Joe Kapp, who played on the football and basketball teams, said, "Robbie was like our older brother."
Guard Denny Fitzpatrick adds, "I got off to a slow start one year. Robbie took me aside and said, 'Look, Denny. You can play in this league; you just have to look for your shots.' That really turned it around for me, and I ended up having a pretty good year. He was clearly our leader. Everybody looked up to him."
But as good as he was at hoops, he was even better on the baseball diamond. In 1957 he batted .352 and led the Bears to the NCAA championship. After graduating in 1958 he played for the Dodgers and Orioles for seven years. Then he embarked on his true vocation as a teacher -- first at Cal as assistant basketball coach, then at Merritt College as the first African-American head coach in the California junior college system. He later moved to Laney College, then returned to Cal as freshman basketball coach.
He made a real difference in the lives of countless younger athletes, including Rickey Henderson, whose acceptance speech he helped write for the baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
He later taught speech and communications at Castlemont High, worked with the Oakland A's as director of special projects, was vice president of the Oakland Zoo's board of trustees and served on the Alameda County grand jury and the board of directors of the Cal Alumni Association, South Berkeley YMCA, Oakland Police Athletic Association YMCA and the Oakland Boys and Girls Club.
Last fall he was diagnosed with end-stage heart failure, but with his Medicare hospice coverage running out, there was no way to pay his mounting bills. So his teammates passed the hat and raised the money. To a man, they said it was payback for everything he had done for them. Robbie met his death the same way he lived his life: with dignity.
"I'm not sad," he said. "My doctors have been straight up with me. I'm probably dying. I'm not ready to give it up yet; but when I do, I'm cool with that."
He died peacefully on July 4, full of love and gratitude. His best friend, Pete Domoto, a guard on the 1958 football team, emailed Robbie's teammates, "Earl died on Independence Day. He soars with the eagles. We will keep him close to our hearts." It was a classy exit for a classy man.
Reach Martin Snapp at firstname.lastname@example.org.